Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, February 2000

The Sentiment of the Sword: A Country-House Dialogue, Part I

By Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, K.C.M.G., F.R.G.S., edited, with Notes, by A. Forbes Sieveking, F.S.A.; and a Preface by Theodore A. Cook

London: Horace Cox, "Field" Office, Bream's Building, E.C., 1911

Ed. note: Paul Nurse, Ph.D, brought this text to our attention.
 

Foreword

The manuscript of the following Dialogue was entrusted to me by the late Lady Burton some time after Sir Richard Burton's death in 1890, together with the notes and memoranda he left for the continuation of his Book of the Sword. [Ed. note: This is still in print (New York: Dover Publications, 1987).] It will, I hope, be of interest as the work of one of the greatest travellers, finest sportsmen, and strongest personalities of the Victorian era; but it will appeal more especially to lovers of the sword and foil, who have increased so vastly in numbers since Burton wrote. For it contains the matured opinions upon the art and methods of one who was throughout his life an ardent student of the theory, and an acknowledged master of the practice, of the art of swordsmanship.

We have Burton's own statement (Life, Vol. I., p. 134), that he began his long practice with the sword seriously at the age of twelve, sometimes taking three lessons a day, and he never missed an opportunity of studying the fencing or fighting methods of whatever country he was in, savage or civilised. In 1850, at the age of twenty-eight, he was devoting himself to fencing at Boulogne. "To this day," writes his widow, "the Burton une-deux, and notably the manchette (the upward slash disabling the sword arm and saving life in affairs of honour), are remembered; they earned him his brevet de pointe for the excellence of his swordsmanship, and he became a maître d'armes." This diploma he placed after his name upon the title page of his Book of the Sword. In 1853 he published A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise, at first pigeonholed at the War Office, was subsequently adapted in the [British] army. [Ed. note. This latter statement is exaggeration: it was published, but hardly adapted.]

Burton's original title for his work was "The Secrets of the Sword," suggested by the Baron de Bazancourt's volume Les Secrets de l'Epée, published in Paris in 1862, from which he quotes freely in the following pages, and so well known in England by Mr. C. Felix Clay's fine translation (illustrated by Mr. F. H. Townsend), which has forestalled the title here. The one chosen in its place, "The Sentiment of the Sword," perhaps suggests even better to non-fencers Burton's intimate sympathy with and affection for the weapon and its correspondence with his own nature, while to swordsmen and fencers it brings home le sentiment du fer invented by our "sweet enemy France" for that inner feeling of the foil, that magnetism of the blade, that sense of touch or "tact" which no other expression in any language so happily conveys.

I have ventured to omit a few passages from Burton's work which time has rendered of less lively interest, and have allowed myself the liberty of a few notes where the text seemed to require it, or the title of an early fencing work has been given in full.

A. Forbes Sieveking

12, Seymour Street, W., December 1910
 
 

The First Evening

Nè, che poco io vi dia da imputar sono,

Chè quanto io passo dur, tutto vi dono. -- ARIOSTO
 
 

I.

In the long world journey of the traveller, who is something of an explorer, there are two lights. The greater is that wild and fiery joy which accompanies actual discovery; the lesser light is the mild and tranquil enjoyment snatched from rude life and spent amid the radiance and fragrance of civilisation.
 
 

II.

One evening, many strangers being in the smoking-room, our talk happened to touch upon the sword. Seaton was certain that the English would never be a fencing nation, that the Pointe was the invention of modern Continental Europe, that the French school is the only system worth learning, and so forth -- the usual commonplaces of swordsmen.

I differed with him upon sundry details. It is hard to say what a nation cannot do: two centuries ago England could teach music to that all-claiming German race -- why should she not teach it again? The Greeks and Romans used the point, although their weapons were rather knives than "long knives," and the Turkish yataghan, the Malay kris, the Afghan "charay" [FN1] the Kabyle flissa [FN2], and the Algerian dagger, from which the Duc D'Aumale borrowed the French sword-bayonet, are made for "thrust" as well as for "cut." We must not go beyond the assertion that only the exclusively pointed weapon, a revival of the old "stocco," that with which General Lamoricière proposed to arm the French cavalry, is the invention of comparatively modern times. As regards the Italian schools, the old and the new, I supported their prowess in the field, and the aristocracy of the family from which they claim descent.

The discussion became animated enough to impress the general ear, despite the protestations of the schoolman and the objections of the cosmopolite. The many present who had never touched a foil were impressed with the halo of feelings which I threw round my favourite pursuit. They began to understand that mind or brain force enters, as well as muscle, into the use of the sword; that character displays itself even more than in the "bumps" of the phrenologists, or the lines of the physiognomist; and that every assault between experts, who despise the mere struggle of amour-propre, is a trial of skill and temper; of energy and judgment, of nerve, and especially of what is known as "coup d'oeil" and the "tact of the sword." Regarding nerve, I asserted that the same quality which makes an exceptionally good rider, marksman, or skater, a cricketer, tennis, or billiard player, to name no others, is required for the finished swordsman. Finally, I proved, to my own satisfaction at least, that, although the man who would be a perfect master of fence must begin in boyhood, simple offence is easily, and defence is even more easily, taught. I fear, in fact, that my form of conversation became somewhat lectural, professorial, and dogmatic.
 
 

III.

"Do you know," said the Châtelaine, "that you are revealing to us the Secrets of the Sword?"

I accept the epigram, was my reply, and certainly nothing can better describe my intention. Amongst all weapons the rapier alone has its inner meaning, its arcana, its mysteries. See how it interprets man's ideas and obeys every turn of his thoughts! At once the blade that threatens and the shield that guards, it is now agile, supple, and intelligent; then slow, sturdy, and persevering; here light and airy, prudent and supple; there, blind and unreflecting, angry and vindictive; I am almost tempted to call it, after sailor fashion, "she."

Unhappily its secrets are generally neglected, and even those who give what are called "fencing lessons," like those who take them, mostly fail to pass beyond the physical view.

Our great-grandfathers wore swords by their sides, and all gentlemen learned to use them. Presently the pistol came into fashion -- an ugly exchange of dull lead for polished steel, and the "art of arms" fell so low that many a wealthy city in England had a "fencing master" who combined the noble functions of dancing master -- sometimes of dentist. The effect of the "muscular movement" has made the foil rise again in the market of popularity, but it is too often used as a mere single-stick might be -- the single-stick, like the quarter-staff, a weapon for Gurths and Wambas.

"Please don't abuse the single-stick," Shughtie interrupted; "it once saved my life."

Nothing newer than to hear him speak of his adventures, as he was that rarity, a lion who seldom roared. The smoking-room at once seized the occasion for insisting that the whole tale be told. The words had fallen from him inadvertently; he could not withdraw them, and so with a resigned air he began:

"Once upon a time, as the story books say, I was travelling amongst the Galla, [FN3] who at first held me in high honour; few had ever seen the 'hot-mouthed weapon,' and those who had knew only ball, so when I made a flying shot they cried, 'Wak, wak, the man from the sea brings down the birds from heaven!' Presently the marvel waxed stale, and my savage friends, in this matter very like the civilised, began to treat me as one of themselves -- which means I was going very fast down a deep slope, with a deep drop at the end. My 'long knife,' as they called my broad sword, also sank in public esteem with its owner. One day a certain ruffler, a fellow of the bully type, showed his entourage how easy it was to beat me with spear and targe; I laughed in his face, and he prepared a trial. My Abyssinian servants were sorely frightened -- 'if you fail, we're all down among the dead men.' I chose a stout, solid stick, and made my boaster take one the length of his assegai, not wishing to trust him with the spear-head. We stood opposite each other; I cut ostentatiously at his face; he guarded with his shield, and my stick was broken, with a resounding thud across his -- well, his flank, low down. A roar of laughter sent him flying in a fury to snatch up his weapon; I cocked my gun, and the bystanders interfered. But my name was made for ever and a day. So I don't abuse single-stick, nor do I ever shoot the 'kattá,' the sandgrouse, which saved us during the same journey from a torturing death by showing a spring of water."

I ventured to assert it was exceptionally rare to find, as in this smoking-room, two out of ten who have made the sword's principles their study.

Such assertions could hardly be disputed, but the auditory, especially those who did not fence or intend to fence, were loud, and I thought invidiously loud, in their praise of "wet bobs and dry bobs," of out-of-door exercises and sports, athletics, boating, rowing, from cricket to foxhunting.

I should be the last man in the room to decry them; but do not let us be Pharisees, who can see no good beyond a certain pale. Athletics are the great prerogative of the North as are gymnastics of the South, and this is one of the main reasons why the North always beats the South -- has always beaten it, from the days of Bellovesus and Brennus, to those of "Kaiser Weissbart," and allow me to predict always will beat it.

"Unless," cried Seaton, "some avatár, some incarnation of Mars like Alexander or Hannibal, Caesar, or Napoleon Bonaparte, throw in his sword to turn the scale. But, happily, it would take half a millennium to breed such men."

Out-of-door exercises give bodily strength, weight, and stature, endurance, nerve, and pluck; tell me how many foot pounds two racers can raise, and will point out the winner in the long run.

But the use of the sword is something more; look at the fine health and the longevity of the maître d'arms -- I doubt if the poet or the mathematician exceed him in this matter of great individual importance.

Our study also is the means adapted to an end. He who can handle a rapier well can learn the use of any other weapon in a few days. It teaches him flexibility of muscle, quickness of eye, judgment of distance, and the consensus of touch with sight, one of the principal secrets of the sword. If he practise consecutively, as much with the left as with the right side, it obviates that serious defect of training only one-half of the body to the detriment of the other. Do you know why men who lose their way in the Arabian desert, on the prairies and pampas of America, on the Russian steppes, or in the Australian bush walk round and round, describing irregular circles and broken ovals, till they droop and drop and die of fatigue, perhaps within a mile of the hidden camp? Simply because when the brain is morbidly fixed upon one object muscle asserts itself, and the stronger right runs away with the weaker left.

"I'm not quite sure," Shughtie objected, "that men do not sometimes wander 'widdershins' or 'against the sun'."

Moreover, I continued, without noticing the remark of the "objector general," these are the days when the "silver streak," our oft-quoted "inviolate sea," must not be expected to ditch and moat us, especially as we seem likely to burrow under it in a measure [the proposed Channel Tunnel] which I greatly fear will turn out --

"Yes," cried Seaton, "with peace-at-any-price policy, someday we may have a hundred thousand men hold the tête-de-pont before our unreadiness has time to move a corps. Nothing proves so well the greatness of Englishmen, nationally and individually, as their wonderful success, despite their various governments.

"And now, when 'la force prime le droit,' when Europe stands up like Minerva in her panoply ready for the trial by what sciolists call 'brute strength,' I would see the old nation, England, take a lesson from her fair and gallant daughter, Canada. It is really refreshing to read of four millions being able to arm [via conscription] nearly 700,000 hands. We are fast returning to those fine old days, still preserved in Asia and Africa, where every free-born man was a born man-at-arms, when every citizen was a soldier, and our falling back on the 'wisdom of antiquity' in this, as in other matters, is not one of the least curious features of the age. I would make Professor Sergeant part and parcel of every school. This has been tried partially and has failed, because the boys take little interest in learning the dull course of 'sitting up' and 'squad work,' which the artless tutor proposes as the art of arms; but when the parents shall set the example, the sons will follow them.

"'Où le père a passé, passera bien l'enfant,' but the sooner drill is introduced perforce into our public schools, the better."

"The worst of fencing," said Charlie, the Oxonian, "is that one must begin from one's childhood, like riding; one must work for years to be a tolerable hand; if one does not keep it up, it becomes as rusty as running or swimming."

Parenthetically, I knew that my fresh-cheeked and stout-framed Oxonian had been an inveterate sportsman from his greenest years, and that even now many an hour during vacation was given to otter hunting. He could also whip [e.g., fly-fish] a stream and throw a quoit [a game similar to horseshoe] admirably -- in fact, he had spent upon these and other recreations time and toil enough to make a complete swordsman. But he was leading up to my point, so I told him bluntly enough he was wrong.

"Pardon me, I've turned over a treatise or two in the library, and they made me feel small: really, it is like reading up geometry or alchemy, or any other secret science."

IV.

Now we come to the gist of the matter. You are quite right about the treatises. They are produced mostly by or for men far more used to the company of Captain Sword [FN5] than that of Captain Pen. Though some masters in the olden day were highly educated men, and, later still, others have written comedies, the pretensions of the modern school are less to literature than to moral dignity. For instance:

"Le maitre d'armes doit avoir une conduite irreprochable, une humeur égale, de la bonté, de l'indulgence sans faiblesse, il doit surtout être juste et impartial, c'est le moyen pour lui d'obtenir l'estime publique et la confiance de ses élèves.

"Le professorat est un sacerdoce, et le maitre d'armes ne doit jamais l'oublier.

"Le maitre d'armes devrait etre non seulement un modèle de tenu, de dignité, de maintien, de politesse et de courtoisie, mais encore un modéle d'honneur.

This does not much help one with a foil. Again, the art of arms is a subject which, like chemistry, cannot be learned from books; even illustrations give only the detached stanzas of the poem. [FN6] Chief of all, these are the words of the professional men who take a pride in making and multiplying difficulties; as masters they must know everything, and as authors they must show what they know. With them the noble art becomes an abstruse science, a veritable mystery of which they are the Magi, the priests. It is well, indeed, when each one does not modify the principles of all others and propound his own system. Without such show of erudition they would expect to be called "ignorants."

Lastly, like the Leçons d'Armes (Paris, 1862) of the good Cordelois, the book too often becomes a mere puff.

A few in England and elsewhere have tried to simplify these treatises, with the effect of a skeleton drill book. These also have unduly neglected principles, or rather, principes, and the result has been a mere tax upon the memory, resembling those abstracts and manuals of history, all names and dates, which no brain -- at least, no average brain beyond its teens -- can remember.

The voice of Seaton now made itself heard.

"I agree with you here. It is my opinion that the affected names and the endless hair-splittings of the fencing books make up a mere jargon. Why talk of the hand in 'pronation' or in 'supination'? Can't you say 'nails down' or 'nails up'? We had trouble enough at school to learn the difference between pronus and supinus, I'm sure. Why must we be taught such technicalities as Avoir de la main, des doigts, des jambes, de la tête, de l'épaule, chasser les mouches, passer en arrière, caver, fair capot, le cliquetis, éperonner, [FN7] and scores of the same kind? They remind me of my crabbed Madras major, who knew some three hundred native names for horse furniture, and could turn them upon any hapless sub. [lieutenant] he wanted to 'spin,' or 'pluck,' as you call it here."

"But very art and every science must have its own vocabulary -- its own slang, if you like. And why not fencing? I, for one, am sure that many of the hard words are of use in fixing the things firmly in memory. And I'm certain," said Shughtie, slowly and deliberately, "that strange alphabets help to fix strange terms in one's memory. My head could never hold Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic from one of your new-fangled Romanised things all powdered into points, accents, and italics. Hungarian and Slav are bad enough, especially Slav; it is beautiful in native costume, and uncomely and barbarous in Latin dress. When I want to learn a new language I use my eyes, my cars, and even my tongue; I read out loud, and I read standing, if possible, by way of distinguishing study from the common way of wasting time over printed stuff. And the want of alphabet would add a month to my work."

Are we not digressing a trifle? I suggested. Granted there must be technical words for technical things: but every art has enough of them without inventing superfluities.

What I most object to in the older and best treatises is the eccentric mania of increasing and multiplying passes and parries, attacks and replies (ripostes), the baggage of the so-called "romantic," the classical and professional schools of arms. I object, also, to the amour-propre which thinks only of faire école, of inventing its own system. L.J. Lafaugère, a practical foil of note, gives (Traité des Armes, 1825) 1272 thrusts and combinations, which remind one of those venerables and reverends who calculated how many angels could stand upon a needle point; beyond this what can man possibly invent? His eccentricities in high attacks engendered by way of reaction the escrime terre-à-terre. [FN8] And what I especially reproach these gentlemen with is their excess of method and order, making their books the most wearisome things after the Newgate Calendar. They read like a list of chess problems, handfuls of detached items --

"Scattered pearls, the Persians would more politely call them," remarked Shughtie.

-- Placed before you without the connecting and carrying thread.

Let us begin at the beginning. After "engagement," or crossing blades, the swordsman may be attacked, or he may attack, in any of these four directions, technically called the lines of defence and offence.

  1. On the right of his sword hand beneath the hilt = the low line outside.
  2. On the left of his sword hand beneath the hilt = the low line inside.
  3. On the right of his sword hand above the hilt = the high line outside.
  4. On the left of his sword hand above the hilt = the low line inside.
Evidently the sword, unless describing a circle, can protect only one of these lines at a time, and the other three remain unguarded.

Each line, therefore, relies on two parades (parries), which may be reduced to half, as the direction of the blade is the same in both; and the only difference is in the nails being turned upwards or downwards. The parries were named by the Italian school after the Latin numbers, and we have adopted them from the French. These are (1) prime (or first position), so called because it is that naturally and necessarily taken by a man drawing his sword from the scabbard which hangs to the left side; (2) seconde; (3) tierce; and (4) carte or quarte (carte dans les armes), as it is technically called.

These four are the natural or elementary parries or passes; but many first-rate fencers use only two, tierce and carte, with the modifications of high and low taking the place of prime and seconde. Excuse me, but it is hardly possible to speak of the art without using these terms, yet we are perfectly aware how unpleasant they are to the public ear. "I expected a book about the sword," once said to me a London publisher, "and now you send me a thing full of cart and tierce." Thus did that eminent man of type "put the cart before the horse."

"Will you explain," asked Charlie, "if 'low carte' means the hand held low, or the point directed low?"

In the schools, as you may see in the famous La Boëssière (plate 8), carte basse means point low and hand high. But there is a difference of opinion; some masters refer it to the hand, and others to hand and point when in the same position.

Prime and seconde yearly become rarer: the first because of its many risks in case of failure, and the second because it causes the point to deviate absolutely from the line of direction. Wary swordsmen affect them only against those who "run in," or to force the blade which lingers too long on the lunge.

Another simplification, probably due to the facility which it is the fashion of our age to cultivate, has been apparently borrowed from the Italian school. The old tierce, with nails down, and the carte, with nails up, are reserved for certain conventional exercises: they embarrass the learner, and they waste time in execution. [FN9] We now adopt the posizione media as a general guard, the thumb upwards, pressing upon the convex side of the grip, and the little finger downwards, the sole requisite precaution being an additional "opposition," or as some call it, "angulation" -- that is to say, pressure upon the opposing blade. This may be called the natural position because all the muscles are comparatively at rest; turn the hand one way or the other, and you have tension or extension.

A low and sullen murmur made itself heard; it came from the direction where Seaton was sitting.

There are four other parries and passes which are affected by the treatises, as late as the nineteenth century. Some of them are now so rarely used, even in books, that many a fencing master either knows them only by theory, or has a very hazy idea of them. You need not learn them -- I quote the names only to complete my list. These are (1) quinte, for which the moderns use "low carte"; (2) sixte, also called "carte sur les armes"; (3) septième, of which nothing remains but its classical parry, the demi-circle; and (4) octave or seconde, with the nails turned up, sometimes used to force a weak guard.

I can tabulate the whole eight within a minute:
 
Inside or Left Outside or Right
1. Prime (low line) 2. Seconde (low line)
4. Carte (high line) 3. Tierce (high line)
5. Quinte (demi-circle, high line) 6. Sixte (high line)
7. Septième (low line) 8. Octave (low line)

This contains every guard, thrust, and parry that has ever been devised, or that ever will be devised by man; you can add no more to it than to the forms of the syllogism, or to the orders of architecture. It is the less formidable, as only one-half is necessary to be learned, and only a quarter is generally used.

Perhaps, if you will allow me to define certain other technical terms, thus they will more easily be grasped by memory.

"Disengagement," the reverse of "engagement," is withdrawing beyond measure. [FN10] By measure (mesure, misura, das maas) we understand the distance which separates two adversaries. It is of three kinds:

  1. The short measure ("within measure"), when the "strong" (forte), or lower halves of the blades nearest the hilt, meet and cross.
  2. Normal, or middle measure, when the swords join in the centre of both.
  3. Long measure ("out of measure"), when the "weak" halves (or foibles) cross each other.
Being "above the arms" (le haut des armes; il disopra delle armi) is when your hand and sword are more elevated than those of your opponent. It is necessary to remember this distinction, as some schools assign the victory, when both opponents touch simultaneously, to the "higher line" of thrust.

By thus mastering first principles, the most complicated treatises will readily be understood, and the theory of managing the sword becomes self-evident. My royal road to learning, in fact, is the path of common sense. You are spared the list of subjects to which this rule may be applied.

Until late years, we prepared ourselves for the business and labours of life by giving, say, five hours a day, between the ages of eight and eighteen -- an existence of ten years, and ten such years! To reading not speaking, to understanding not mastering, a few books in Latin and Greek --

"Please leave Greek and Latin alone," was heard faintly, and as if from afar.

-- But swimming, which might save a life, was unknown, even to many sailors. Fencing, one of the most beneficial exercises to brain as well as muscle, the power of defence which may preserve us from the insults of the bully, and the dangerous attacks of the duellist -- in fact, the large class which the French sum up as les impertinents, les brouilleurs, les querelleurs et les méchants, was considered an "accomplishment" like that piano so fatal to the feminine mind.

This was the opposite extreme, quite as uncommendable as that of [the fourteenth century Breton man-at-arms Bertrand] Duguesclin, who would never learn to write; or of the Spartan-English mother of our day who declared that no son of hers should ever know how to sign his name. In India not a few officers have actually gone into action without even wearing their swords. Who can feel for them if they come to grief?

See, also, until the reign of Napoleon III. (who, as the courteous Scotch earl observed to him, made the English a military nation, how much we suffered in person and reputation under the effeminacy arising from our neglect of manly weapons. But I need not press this point.

"Hear! Hear!" said the smoking-room, with quiet emphasis.
 
 

V.

"You must not let your listeners suppose," remarked Lord B., "that you would make arms the business of every man's life."

Of course not, unless they are to be soldiers; we may leave that to their intelligence. A pleasant and useful exercise should not be turned into an absorbing pursuit. Some will be amateur fencing masters, like myself; others will take up a foil gymnastically, or to spend a pleasant hour amongst friends.

But I must again notice Charlie's remark that fencing, like riding, must be begun when the boy is breeched. This is a long subject --

"Which will lead us into the small hours," quoth Shughtie with intention.

"Bear with me till you finish your last pipe -- a ponderous meerschaum, by the by -- perfectly bien culotée. The average intellect, we may say, learns most during its first ten years, and after fifty it generally fails to assimilate a new idea. What the usual run of mankind want to master quickly, and thoroughly to retain, must, I own, be studied in youth; but there are many exceptions -- men with all the qualifications necessary to success save one, and that is opportunity. I remember two instances in particular. A. had passed thirty before touching a foil; at thirty-five he was a first-rate fencer. B. was a "gunner," who had never mounted anything but a donkey, and that in his Ramsgate days. He slipped over the horse's head at his first leap, his second trial threw him upon the pommel, and the third found him in the saddle. I did not witness the process, but I did see him win certain welter stakes, when he rode like a professional.

Then, again, there are degrees and degrees. The collegian, who wants only to understand the Pentateuch, does not read after the fashion of his neighbour who intends to become a Hebrew professor. If men refused to ride unless they could rival Lords Waterford and Cardigan, they would be doomed never to sit on pigskins. Fencers like the inimitable Chevalier de Saint-Georges [FN11] of Guadaloupe, called the phénix des armes of the last, and Lord Henry Seymour in the present century -- not to mention those now living -- spent long years in physical toil, in deep meditation, and in pure devotion to their art. But of what use would be such exellences hors ligne to anyone in this room? Rather a source of trouble than of pleasure and profit. I knew a Brazilian who laid out all his money in buying a diamond fabulous as to number of carats, and who was nearly starved because he could not sell it.

"You have forgotten to tell us," urged Shughtie, "that your inimitable Saint-Georges was twice buttoned and soundly beaten, once in London by an Englishman, Mr. Goddart (in foreign books called 'Godart'), and again by an Italian, the celebrated Giuseppe Gianfaldoni, of Leghorn. The famous Creole was travelling from France to Italy, and at an acaemy he received two buttons to one. An account of the rencontre was published at Leghorn by the victor's brother in 1825.

I owned not to have heard it before.

"Then we are to understand you," asked Claude, "that it is as easy to learn fencing as riding?"

The Cantab was thoroughly at home on horseback, and he had that slightly parenthetical form of leg which betrays infantine acquaintance with the saddle; indeed, the length of body and the shortness of the extremities had suggested to his friends the sobriquet "Jock."

I should say fencing was as easy as riding for most men, whose sight is good and whose nerves can be depended upon. Of course, we must not push the comparison between fencing and riding too far.

The first point to try with the pupil is to flash the sword before his eyes. If he winks nervously, and if no practice will cure him of winking, he will never be a perfect swordsman or a first-rate shot.

"I'm certain of that," interrupted Shughtie. "In Upper India a Sikh will swing his open hand across a stranger's face without touching it, and cry, 'You are a soldier!' if the eyes do not blink; if they do, 'Chi! You are a peasant,' or worse still, a 'coolie.'"

What I mean is that the winker can never depend upon a simple parade and riposte, upon that "tic-tac," which is the height of good, clean fencing. But an old master will teach him to supplement his weak point as the stammer doctor walks his patient round the difficulty, and he may even be able to get beyond mediocrity -- no easy task.

"My cigar's finished," said Seaton, with intention, but no malice.

My friend had begun riding and fencing early in life; he was short of stature and long of back, his nose was prominent, and his hair, moustache, and regulation whiskers were, his friends said, auburn, his unfriends fiery. Such sanguine temperments usually have strong opinions, and their strongest are about themselves.

My lecture is over. Briefly, in six weeks men with "good dispositions" can do something; with a year's work they ought to make palpable and real progress in the noble art of arms. But they too often go to a mere sciolist of tierce and carte, or to the dancing-master; fencing-master. [FN12] For the seri studiorum the coach is all in all, and I can prove it.

"Advice to people about to marry," murmured Shughtie. On seeing him for the first time a stranger would be apt to exclaim, "That's a hard-looking man!" and after hearing where he had been and what he had done, the stranger would be apt to add, "He's just the man to do it." Hard, indeed, was the character of Shughties weather-beaten features -- hard as his heart was soft. High cheek bones, grey eyes, set deep in cave-like sockets, shining forth a fierce light, with prominent eyebrows jutting over them like a pent-house; forehead low and slightly retreating, nose thick and anything but classical, a beard falling to the waist, and grizzly, short-cropped hair which, they say, prevented his becoming bald; an upper lip clothed with a large moustache, stiff but not bristly -- that shows the rough "son of Neptune" -- yet hardly large enough to hide the setting of the lips, and jaws vast and square as if settled down into a somewhat humorous war with the world, at the same time showing none of the futile pugnacity of the Celt. Such was the countenance. He was a tallish man, whose vast breadth of chest and shoulders made him appear below middle size. The tout ensemble of face and figure was intended, said the jealous, for a born pugilist. Such men, who voluntarily assume the bearskin, are apt to growl, and sometimes to barb a growl with a venerable quotation from Mr. Punch. [FN13]

"Perhaps, gentlemen," said Lord B., with even more than usual kindness, "to-morrow evening Capt. Burton will give us a sketch of his curriculum?"

With all the pleasure in life! But I would warn you that it will be as an improvisatore, not as a professor. And now good-night. Seaton, have you brought your plastron? [FN14] Shughtie, do not mistake in your dreams that other valley of the Nile? And under cover of these feeble shots I effected my escape.

To be continued.
 
 


Footnotes (use your back button to return to the text)

Ed. note: The footnotes were in the original text, but editorial notes have been inserted using [square brackets].

FN1. "A cogener of the Egyptian flesh-knife sword" (Book of the Sword, page 212). [For online illustrations and descriptions of ethnographic cutlery, try http://www.vikingsword.com/ethsword/index.html.]

FN2. See Book of the Sword, page 164, for illustration.

FN3. The Galla is a fierce pastoral nomad tribe of Eastern inter-tropical Africa [e.g., Somalia]. See Life of Burton, I., page 260. The same story is told in Burton's Diary on page 203 of Vol. I.

FN4. This journey is described most vividly on page 215 of Burton's Life, Vol. I.

FN5. "Captain Sword and Captain Pen," a poem by Leigh Hunt, 1835. [The Friends of the University of Iowa Libraries reprinted the text in 1984; the Library of Congress call number is PR4812 .C3.]

FN6. One of the rarest books on fencing happens to be the poem La Xiphonomic (1821), by Lhomandie, a pupil of Texier de la Boëssière, the British Museum having no copy.

FN7. Many of these terms are still current in the Salle d'Armes. The definitions may be found in M. La Boëssière's Traité de l'Art des Armes (pp. 18-24).

FN8. A term borrowed from the Manège art: might be translated "ground-game fencing."

FN9. There has been a tendency of late years in the modern French school, led by the classic Camille Prévost, to revive the use of Tierce.

FN10. Since Burton's day the word "disengagement" is solely used for the French dégagement (Italian caragione), which means passing your point under the adversary's blade from tierce to carte or vice versâ. Since his day, too, sixte has come largely into use in place of tierce.

FN11. A biographical sketch of Chevalier Saint-Georges, with his portrait, is given in Angelo's Treatise on the Ability and Advantages of Fencing (Fol. 1817, London) and a "Notice Historique" by M. La Boëssière in his Traité de l'Art des Armes (1818, pp. xvi-xxii), Saint-Georges having been a pupil of the elder La Boëssière.

FN12. There is early literary authority for this combination: Toinot Arbeau's (Tabourot's) Orchésographie, published in 1595, is not only the earliest printed "Dancing-Master," but also comprised "méthode et théorie en forme de discours et tablatures pour apprendre à tirer des armes et escrimer" -- but this title-page promise only realises a sword-dance performance! [The sword dance in Arbeau is called 'Buffins," explains Earl Hartman. "I used to know how to do it. It's quite a lot of fun, actually. A group of four men armed with swords and bucklers, and sometimes dressed up to look like Moors, perform a series of increasingly complicated sword maneuvers, some of which involve engaging more than one person at a time, or blocking and delivering blows while your back is turned to the adversary. It's all choreographed, of course, and properly done presents quite a spectacle."]

FN13. I think Burton here sketches his own portrait in Shughtie: compare it with the other painted by Lady Burton -- pages 166-7 of her Life.

FN14. The plastron is the fencing master's thickly padded shield or guard worn on the breast to receive the pupil's thrusts.
 
 

JNC Feb 2000